Early Life and Childhood Artistic Influences
Carl William Peters, born on November 14th, 1897, was the first child of Frederick and Louisa Peters. His parents, both German immigrants, had met in Rochester around 1895 while Frederick was working as a machine maintenance worker at the Democrat and Chronicle, and Louisa as a Cook. Frederick and Louisa had much in common: both were German immigrants, both were working class, and both had found a home in the rich German-American community that had been steadily growing in Rochester since the 1830s. The two were married in 1896, and Carl was their first of five children.
Though Carl Peters was born in a small house on Bartlett Avenue, the Peters family relocated to a house on Meigs street as the family grew in size and needed more space. This new house exposed Carl to the abundant artistic culture of Rochester, as it was only a few blocks away from the East Avenue and Prince Street area where many wealthy patrons of the arts lived and worked. His experience in the Rochester public school system allowed him to further explore his growing talent and interest in drawing. Anecdotes from Peters’ youth describe him sketching on everything within his reach as early as elementary school, even going so far as to draw on the school blackboards without permission.
Drawing was Carl’s sole preoccupation during his schooling years, and this was very clear to his family, who realized early on that art seemed to be the only path for him. Though his parents would later express doubt about whether art was viable as a career, when he was a child, Carl’s talent and passion for drawing was mostly encouraged. In school, teachers nurtured his talent rather than shutting him down, and this led to him being able to seriously focus on art at a young age.
Another strong influence on Carl’s growing interest in the arts was the opening of the East High School Art Show. This took place in February of 1910, and was the Rochester Art Club’s first attempt to put on a show with free admission. The show opened in East High School, featuring pieces from prominent local artists. It was a big success that attracted the whole Rochester art community. For Carl, who was a little over twelve years old at the time of this extravaganza, the show provided ample opportunity to view a fascinating and eclectic mix of art by local masters. More importantly, the obvious success of the show proved to both Carl and his parents that pursuing a career in art and painting was a very real possibility.
By 1911, Frederick and Louisa had six children, and the family began to feel cramped in their city home in central Rochester. Frederick’s job at the Democrat and Chronicle was heavy in physical labor, and did not pay well. With so many children and such a low income, the Peters’ family had struggled with money since Carl’s birth. Though they were always able to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, Frederick was ready for a change. He decided to move the family out to a farm in Fairport, a small country town about ten miles east of Rochester.
Though the move was ultimately the right choice for the family, it did not come without difficulty. It coincided with Frederick’s retirement from the Democrat and Chronicle, which did not provide any retirement benefits at the time, so the Peters family did not have enough money to purchase property in Fairport. But the community came together for them, and were able to raise a loan to give to the Peters family that allowed them to purchase the farm.
After moving to the ten-acre farm with a house, barn, and apple orchard, Frederick was able to take up farming as his new profession. By this time, Carl was almost fifteen years old and had already lived his younger childhood in Rochester. Despite this, he adjusted to the country well, and living in Fairport would prove to be especially important for his development as an artist.
After the move to Fairport, the daily life of the Peters family changed substantially. The town was made up of mostly rural farmland, with a small but bustling Main Street marking its center. Carl went from having school, art exhibits, and electricity right at his fingertips, to living on a rural farm where houses were separated by large spans of farmland, and the nearest school was multiple miles away. He could no longer spend as much time staying up late and drawing, or walk next door to spend time with friends. Carl’s days became defined by helping out on the farm, taking care of his five younger siblings, and working at the Foster-Armstrong Piano Company. Though Carl was expected to complete grade school, he did not attend high school in Fairport due to the other responsibilities he had taken on as the eldest child of a farm family.
Though his public education stopped early on, Carl was able to study art at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics institute (which would later become the Rochester Institute of Technology, or RIT) and also became an apprentice for a theater scene painter in Brighton. Fairport may have been a country village, but it was still close enough to Rochester that Carl was able to bike back and forth between Rochester and Fairport; there were ample opportunities to access the benefits of Rochester’s art community.
Country living suited Carl, and he began to realize just how much artistic inspiration he took from nature. He began spending a lot of time in nature, between life on the farm and his bike commute between Fairport and Rochester. He kept a pocket sketchbook and would draw any and everything just to gain practice. This move taught Carl that he could make art anywhere- it didn’t matter what resources were at his fingertips. He found peace and joy in the tranquility of nature, and began to make a habit of intently observing his surroundings, taking in every mundane detail. These deep feelings that came to Carl while he was in nature were what he hoped to translate into his art: his drawings were a way to share this positive emotion with others.